by David G. Hackett
This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.
Trying to figure out where early nineteenth century men congregated led me to try to understand Freemasonry. While researching an earlier social history of Albany, New York I discovered that in 1830, 74 percent of that town’s male work force did not belong to a church, and 72 percent of the members of its churches were women. City directory lists of Masonic lodges and their officers suggested themselves to me as holding possible answers.
I initially read my way into the literature on Freemasonry while looking for the existence of a male world that might broadly complement the Protestant women’s sphere. As my research progressed, I saw larger implications. The fraternity’s legendary history and ceremonial practices were part of the larger world of wonders inhabited by colonial men and women. Revolutionary-era Christian, republican Freemasonry had an influence on the creation of the United States that rivaled that of Protestantism. The brotherhood’s private ceremonies were centrally involved in changing understandings of the body and sensory experience.
Moreover, at different times Masonic beliefs and practices paralleled, interacted with, and diverged from not only white, mainstream Protestantism but also the black church, Native American world views, and immigrant Jewish and Catholic communal understandings. Though not a religion to its adherents, Freemasonry played a considerable role in the American religious past.
In That Religion in Which All Men Agree I argue that from the 1730s through the early twentieth century the religious worlds of an evolving American social order broadly appropriated the beliefs and initiatory practices of this all-male society.
David G. Hackett teaches American religious history at the University of Florida.
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